In the beginning was Sunset Towers. By which I mean, at the beginning of what I quickly came to think of as my reading life: whatever came before, whether read aloud by teacher or parent or consumed in classroom or bed, might as well have been writ in water. Because Sunset Towers is, of course, at the very beginning of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, the 1978 middle-grade classic that I read and reread, through countless empty afternoons and alarmingly vacant summer mornings, as the ’70s melted away and then cooled into the metallic ’80s.
Its much-imitated first sentences promised a kind of initiation:
The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
I lived near enough to Lake Michigan to sense this as a version of what I’d much later learn to call realism. International Style knockoffs, as starkly linear as the shore they so often faced, were an architecture I felt in my bones as strongly as the inevitable low-slung mid-century Bauhaus-lite public schools I’d attended. The American present, in other words, but given back to me as sinister or encoded, structured by mystery and with a dubious intent hiding behind the ordinary real estate lie. Later still, I’d learn about “defamiliarization,” and that was what Raskin did for me as I read those opening sentences for the fifth or 15th time: made me feel the usual as strange.
It wasn’t an eccentric response. Now reissued for its 40th anniversary, The Westing Game is a classic of middle-grade literacy, not just a totem of Gen-X childhood memory.1 What it did, and still does, is to introduce young readers to how complex reading can be, to the idea in fact that different kinds of “reading” are possible, and that these can coexist without being quite compatible. The titular competition to determine who will inherit Samuel Westing’s fortune is a textual game in which characters circulate bits of writing and try to divine the master code that explains them, in ways that mimic and even parody different interpretive methods. (Connoisseurs of poststructuralism, meet the Westing heirs, who outdo the most mannered Derridean readings.)
Raskin’s devious riddling flatters a young reader’s intellect, and The Westing Game is nothing if not appealing to precocious kids who like puzzles. Chess, the stock market, shorthand writing, chemical formulae: the book is full of enigmatic systems that, since they can be deciphered, are both enticing and ultimately benign. Yet the satisfyingly linear plot that the main Game sets in motion is at odds with the corrosive atmosphere of deep disillusionment that envelops Raskin’s shady characters. Their endless lying constitutes another kind of game, one that troubles our readerly faith that competitions are fair and intelligence will win the day.
Like everything else in the novel, Sunset Towers is a clue, maybe a meta-clue, because its illusory towers expose delusion as integral to the world its readers inhabit. To usher young readers into this deceptive space is to invite them to recognize that novels show us a world of lies. They might teach us how to detect a lie. They might teach us why lies get told. They might even be—as Raskin’s is—surprisingly tender toward liars. But above all novels prepare us to see lies around us and prompt us to begin puzzling out how to live with them.
For the uninitiated: Raskin’s is a particularly baroque version of the murder-mystery puzzle. One fourth of July, 12 people from six seemingly unrelated households are lured into renting apartments at the newly built Sunset Towers—an opaque lakeside sentinel, its glass exterior revealing only “the dim, warped reflections of treetops and drifting clouds.” The only other object in this nearly featureless landscape is a mansion belonging to Samuel Westing, a reclusive paper-products industrialist believed missing or dead.
The following November, newspapers declare Westing dead. Shortly afterward, a lawyer arrives with letters announcing that 12 of the building’s inhabitants plus its doorman, “delivery boy,” cleaning woman, and the fiancé of one of the inhabitants have been named as beneficiaries to Westing’s will. The will, however, also announces that Westing was murdered; divides the 16 beneficiaries (called his “nieces and nephews”) into eight pairs of investigators; distributes clues to each pair to help them solve the murder; and promises the full $200 million inheritance to the pair that wins this deadly-serious parlor game. These complex instructions are read aloud while Westing’s body, dressed as Uncle Sam, lies in state before the soon-to-be players. Not for the last time, Uncle Sam separates parents and children and pits his increasingly fractious legatees against each other.
What ensues are eight intertwined plot lines in which these awkwardly matched pairs discover that each “player” has reasons to deceive the others. The 16 players are deliberately, flagrantly, almost allegorically multicultural: a female African American appellate judge; a Chinese American family with a budding athlete; two young Greek American brothers, one of whom has been struck by a degenerative muscle condition; a precariously genteel half-Jewish family; a reclusive evangelical; a former union organizer. Or as Raskin’s narrator puts it: “A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.”
The intricate set-up allows Raskin something formally daring for a middle-grade fiction: an almost completely distributed narrative focus. Raskin takes care to use an authoritative third person as little as possible; most of the novel is written instead in close third person or dialogue, spread evenly across her large cast and parceled out in short scenes whose interconnections are not immediately knowable. It is a thrilling kind of abandonment, an invitation to adult freedom and adult disorientation.
As a technical analogue to the novel’s allegorical Americanness, the method is strikingly democratic, but uneasily so. Raskin’s use of close third person, more technically known as free indirect discourse, for an audience unlikely to be accustomed to its use, could be considered another one of the novel’s puzzles, but it contributes less to the solution of the Game and more toward establishing an ambiance of discomfort: anger, self-doubt, and—in fact signally—resentment. We meet Sydelle Pulaski, the solitary executive secretary, getting out of a taxi unattended: “No one ever noticed. Sydelle Pulaski limped through the lobby. She could be carrying a high-powered rifle in that package and no one would notice.”
Pride, wariness, self-justification, self-hatred: they leak out of each character, all of whom have reasons to feel, and often indulge themselves in feeling, underestimated. A toxic cloud of adult frustration hovers over the action; everyone here, particularly the seemingly meekest, wants to be in a different position. When in the novel’s middle section a blizzard traps the tenants in Sunset Towers’ translucent cave, the claustrophobia of competing resentments turns violent; there is in fact a bomber loose, the “bombs” being fireworks dangerously set off indoors.
Not for the last time, Uncle Sam separates parents and children and pits his increasingly fractious legatees against each other.
The fireworks-turned-bombs indicate, like a clue too obvious to be seen, how much of a deftly perverse post-Bicentennial novel this is, how curdled and suspicious its America despite the trappings of celebration. The firework-bombs collapse 1976’s celebrations with Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. On meeting Judge Josie-Jo Ford, the wheelchair-bound Chris Theodorakis wonders if “she’s one of those Black Panthers in disguise.” His brother, meanwhile, experiments with chemical fertilizers. When suspicion for Westing’s death falls on the delivery man Otis Amber, “he swept a pointed finger across their range, imitating the sound of a machine gun.” The lyrics to “America the Beautiful” turn out to encode a story of family trauma; meanwhile, Uncle Sam lies in a coffin, embalmed—or a fake. It’s antic comedy covering combustible material.
All of which is to say that Raskin channeled a 1970s paranoid style and adopted it as a rationale for a young reader’s engagement; hers would be a novel meant to educate you in false surfaces. The plot may be Agatha-Christie-meets-middle-America but the tone of alluring disillusionment arising slowly out of naiveté, falling in love with falling out of love, seems closer to one of her moment’s famous stylists, Joan Didion. Forty years later, Sunset Towers reminded me of a more sunbleached example of Potemkin Americana: the Reagan-inspired Governor’s Residence of California, as described by Didion in a 1977 essay. Sited on a bluff over the American River but with no clear view of it, built of false adobe bricks and sham redwood, the house where no governor actually lived was for Didion “a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently ‘democratic,’ flattened out, mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn.”2
The suspicious style ends up being a natural fit for a preadolescent reader. A later middle-grade classic, Louis Sachar’s 1998 Holes, opens in what is essentially an homage to Sunset Towers: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”3 Sachar’s book, however, is both more stridently dark and finally more heroic; the traduced and abused children fight back and win. Raskin, true to her moment, is less certain of how, or if, final victory comes. Turtle Wexler, the angry, whip-smart stock-market-aficionado-in-braids whom most readers finally identify with, thinks she can outwit the game. But she also cries out helplessly, at a pivotal moment: “Why is everybody lying?” Being smart is not necessarily a refuge. If the game lets you win, it may only be for some purpose of its own.
By her own account, The Westing Game seems to have got away from Raskin. Her inspiration was the coincidence of the Bicentennial and the death of Howard Hughes, which gave her the idea to write a mystery about an industrialist’s bequests. But the plan had an undertow. Raskin’s Westingtown, she later explained, is a fictionalized Sheboygan, Wisconsin, her father’s hometown and neighbor to Kohler, home of the Kohler Company, the plumbing and toilet empire known for its history of labor unrest. (In a sly bit of metonymic wit, Raskin turns Kohler’s toilets into Westing’s paper.) In her Newbery Award acceptance speech, Raskin refers in passing to the “notorious strike breaker, old man Kohler”: Herbert Kohler Sr., whose stubborn refusal to negotiate with the UAW led to the protracted and violent strike that began in 1954. The novel started as an homage to a traumatic and still-recent labor history, the deceptive glassy calm of Sunset Towers dependent on the old man in the mansion on a hill who owns everything, as far as one can see, and won’t give it up without a fight.
As the novel’s elaborate plot developed, however, something happened, which Raskin admitted with a kind of amused ruefulness: “I almost outwitted myself: my tribute to American labor history ended up a comedy in praise of capitalism.”4 Fondness intervened: the need to keep a maximum of complexity in the “Game,” added to her increasing affection for its players, led her to a final twist in which Sam Westing the feared union buster becomes Sam Westing the benevolent master of ceremonies, the most skilled of all players, trying to distribute his wealth to the most deserving.
No more spoilers here, other than this: the ingredients for irreparable conflict, all those resentful interests cooped up in Sunset Towers, end in comic resolution through an open, if also slightly rigged, competition. It’s a plot paradigm that seems to come out of the Chicago school of economics. Play the game—and the novel has so many games within its overarching competition—and everyone wins; you learn to respect, maybe even love, your rivals. Or, as Judge Ford thinks: “No matter how much fear and suspicion he instilled in the players, Sam Westing knew that greed would keep them playing the game.” That collective greed, the plot’s fuel, is ultimately sublated into a utopia of differential rewards that might have made Milton Friedman, who spent his Bicentennial near the same lake as the Westing heirs, smile.5
The novel’s ambiance of unappeased suspicion, however, cuts against the contented conclusion of the game plot. Raskin wrote herself into what now, 40 years later, I’d call an ideological bind, a dissonance between plot and tone. In this she was capturing her post-Bicentennial moment even better than she had planned. An inexorable and creepy optimism descends to solve, without resolving, the antagonisms that have simmering under the surface all along. Don’t trust Uncle Sam? Your only recourse is to hope Uncle Sam fixes everything. As the novel ends on yet another Independence Day, it’s “Morning in America” for the more and less deluded denizens of Sunset Towers. Reading The Westing Game was and is a brief lesson in the difference between the rules that structure a game and the rationale for those rules, a challenge for the intellect that still quietly insists that winning games isn’t all that it seems.
This article was commissioned by Marah Gubar.
- The Westing Game’s current place in middle-grade curricula—as a gateway to novel reading—is evidenced by texts like Rafe Esquith’s 2007 Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56, although unlike the other texts to which it is compared (The Phantom Tollbooth, Bridge to Terabithia), Raskin’s realism is notable. ↩
- From Didion’s “Many Mansions,” written in 1977 and collected in The White Album (Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 69. ↩
- Sachar, Holes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), p. 3. ↩
- From her Newbery Award speech; a recording of Raskin reading the speech can be found on the American Library Association website, here. ↩
- As Friedman himself remarked, 1976 was a “double Bicentennial”—that of the Declaration of Independence, and of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. See Friedman’s “The Fragility of Freedom,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4 (Summer 1976), p. 561. ↩